Woman-on-Woman Bullying in The Story of Hannah by Joelle Abramowitz, PhD
We read the story of Hannah each year as the haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah; she faces infertility, she prays to God for a child, and in exchange for her prayers being answered, she commits to giving her child up after he is weaned.
But another look at the text could reveal a different story than the traditional narrative:
“One such day, Elkanah offered a sacrifice. He used to give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he would give one portion only — though Hannah was his favorite — for the LORD had closed her womb. Moreover, her rival, to make her miserable, would taunt her that the LORD had closed her womb. This happened year after year: Every time she went up to the House of the LORD, the other would taunt her, so that she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons’”
— I Samuel 1:4-8
While it is clear that Hannah is distraught, it is not clear to me that it is her infertility in itself that is the cause of her distress. In this passage, I am struck not by Hannah’s infertility, but by this bullying she encounters from her sister-wife.
Why Is Peninnah Taunting Hannah?
Was Hannah’s desire simply to have a child, or was it also to silence her sister-wife’s bullying? In a world where women are valued primarily for their fertility, taunting someone for their barrenness is the ultimate put-down.
Being married to the same man, Hannah would have had to see Penninah, and live with this bullying, all the time.
I would go even further to say that it is not clear to me that Hannah even wants to be a mother. We only learn about her desire for a child in connection to how she is taunted. And ultimately, in exchange for the child, she commits him to a life of service to the temple.
While such an trade-off would seem illogical for a person who longed only to be a mother, it seems a perfectly logical solution for a person did not want to be a mother, but did want to silence her bully. The text does make clear that Hannah was the favorite wife, which means Penninah was second-best...
Is Penninah Building Herself Up?
Did Penninah build herself up by cutting Hannah down as she was stuck in a relationship with a man with whom she felt less than, despite her best efforts?
And then we have Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, who, despite his best intentions appears to be quite clueless as to what is going in between his two wives. He doesn’t seem to see the bullying taking place, to understand why his relationship with Hannah isn’t enough for her.
In this text, we are left to imagine Hannah’s response to such a question from her husband. The situation seems similar to that in the selection of Torah we read just before this passage on Rosh Hashanah, of the struggles of Sarah and Abraham with infertility, and with the taunting that Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, inflicts upon her.
On that text, in which Sarah explicitly tells Abraham about this interaction, Rashi, the medieval Torah commentator, speculates Sarah explaining to Abraham:
“You deprive me of your protecting words since you hear how I am despised and yet you keep silent”
— Genesis Rabbah 45:5
I believe the same could be said for Elkanah.
The way we’ve told the story, there is a problem that only G-d can fix, and it is only through heartfelt prayer that G-d is willing to intervene. But I think this alternative telling brings us to a different conclusion: Hannah (and Sarah) must turn to G-d because there is no place for their voices to be heard among the people in their lives and the structures in their world.
Likewise, it does not appear that there is anyone to hear Peninnah’s pain of being stuck in a bad relationship (or Hagar’s pain of being forced to live her life as a handmaid), and this leads them to putting down the other women in their lives and further isolating themselves. Meanwhile, we celebrate the men in these stories for their accomplishments in other domains, but let them off the hook when they let down their wives in important ways.
We’ve all been a Hannah - the subject of uninvited ridicule about topics that may or may not actually be important to us, but that serve to cut us down regardless.
We’ve all been a Penninah - cutting down others to boost our own egos when we feel powerless.
And we’ve all been an Elkanah - letting our views on what is wrong in the lives of those around us prevent us from hearing them when they cry out to us.
Perhaps in our world, the lesson is as much about turning to each other as it is about turning to G-d. That we need to be better to each other - to hear each other and to empower each other - and we need to build communities and structures that embody these values. This High Holiday season, I hope we can reflect on the ways we’ve been hurt, the ways we’ve hurt others, and the ways we can be better.
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